I'm about halfway through with my initial edit of Black Box. Currently it's at 442 pages and just under 135,000 words, and I'd like to make it as small as possible without cutting out large chunks of content. Anything over 120,000 words is supposedly too lengthy for a first time author, but there are, of course, exceptions to every rule.
Sam Pasteur stood before the ancient Jonathan tree, marveling at its gnarled, twisted beauty. For over one-hundred years it had stood on the Rodriguez property, a time-piece measuring the anabasis of its owners, advancing like they had. From off of its central leader three main tiers grew, each twice as thick as a man’s thigh. Many of these branches were rotten, and Sam could see through much of the trunk, but new growth was emerging out of one of the second big limbs. That overgrown water-sprout is bigger than most of the new dwarf trees, he thought. He spat a black wad of tobacco juice into the tall grasses that grew around the tree’s base and out jumped a scrawny rabbit. Sam watched it bound beneath the decrepit fence of the old orchard and into the Huerto parking lot. People were flocking out of the obsidian structure, city people dressed in slacks and blouses and tennis shoes, moving like a herd of cattle toward their shiny dent-free vehicles. He reared back and spat again, his saliva smacking loudly against the chipped white paint of a fence board.
“There’s some nice-looking ladies coming outta that building,” said the Goon, appearing by his side. Sam turned to him and grimaced. Sam himself was not a particularly attractive person, but the Goon was damn-near hideous, with his craggy shaved head and that great big hairy mole sitting right above his mouth like a calcified booger.
“What you doing over here, goddamnit?” Sam said, with feigned outrage. “I thought I told you to get to work on that tree with the chainsaw. These people don’t want you leering at them like some sideshow idiot.”
“This here tree?” replied the Goon, pointing at the Jonathan. “Why you want to cut down such a big-ass tree?”
“We’re clearing out all of the old orchard, and this tree needs felling. Its apples are tarter than normal, and when’s the last time you had someone ask you for Jonathan?”
“Mostly Honeycrisp or Gold Rush is what I got asked for last year,” said the Goon. “But I remember an old lady came by and asked for Jonathans.”
“I’ve wanted to cut this tree down for fifty years,” Sam said. “It was planted by Rodriguez’s great-grandfather, and to chop it down would be like cutting off ol’ Juan’s head.”
“He put you outta business back in the day, didn’t he?” asked the Goon.
“Get that damn chainsaw started,” he replied angrily. The Rodriguez family and the Pasteurs had been rivals for nearly a century, and now that Juan Carlito was dead, the murder of his ancestral orchard was the closest thing to a finishing blow Sam could deliver.
The Goon went over to the old Chevy and took out the chainsaw. He’ll probably cut off his goddamn foot, worried Sam. The machine roared to life, and the Goon approached the Jonathan, moving awkwardly in his peculiar stutter-step.
“Cut it about two-thirds of the way through the trunk,” directed Sam. “Then step away from the goddamn thing before it falls on your head.”
The Goon gave him a lopsided grin. “You don’t think I’ve ever handled a chainsaw before, Mr. Sammy?” he hollered. His large teeth glittered in the afternoon sun. “We gonna get a beer after this?”
“If you don’t kill yourself or me, that’s a possibility,” replied Sam. Orchard work was best accomplished while moderately drunk. Sam had learned that years ago.
The Goon revved up the blade and set it against the ancient Jonathan. Wood flew, and Sam saw him get about an inch into the truck, when a suddenly he jumped back, clutching his eye. The chainsaw was dropped, and it puttered quietly on the ground.
“What the hell happened?” said Sam, moving toward him.
“There’s a damn splinter in my eye!” shouted the Goon.
“Get your hand off it and let me see,” said Sam, holding open the Goon’s eyelid with his right hand. Right next to the iris was a tiny splinter. Sam moved his fingers quickly and pulled it out.
“Can you see all right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said the Goon.
“Well, we’ll do this another day. I’ll get you a pair of goggles.” The Jonathan could stand awhile longer. He examined the small dent in its trunk. This thing could live another hundred years, he thought. The Rodriguez family might not. The Pasteurs were certainly finished. Marriage wasn’t in Sam’s future, and he had no children. The Goon was as close to a son as he’d ever have.
Back at the barn, Sam retrieved a couple of High-Lifes and sat down with the Goon on the tail-end of the pickup. The apples were growing larger, and pretty soon the summer varieties would be ripe. Duchess of
an antique apple originating in ,
was first. It was mealy and tart, but it made a decent pie. He watched the Goon
sip at his beer and then offered him a cigarette. Russia
“You know you’re the only person I’ve got to talk to about raising fruit?” said Sam, taking a big swig of his brew. “When I’m gone, someone will have to run this place, and it won’t be Rodrico or that
guy. Rodriguez has done about everything he could short of selling this place
to make the farm an unsuccessful business. I don’t think he ever got along with
his daddy; God knows I hated his old man, but just the same, I’d like someone
to take up the profession.” He looked behind him, and saw Hernando driving the
tractor back, pulling the sprayer. Arlington
“You got to know how to do all this shit,” he said, placing a hand on the Goon’s shoulder. “Apples and peaches and pears; people won’t get tired of them. I don’t know what the future holds, but I think your generation is going to have some problems. You best know how to care for yourself.”
The Goon nodded silently. He was a good listener but Sam didn’t know how much got through that thick skull.
“Do you appreciate being outside and having the sun on your back? Do you take pride in watching the fruit swell? Do you feel like all that mowing you did to keep the grass cut beneath the trees was worth it?” He took a long drag on his cigarette. “You can work for other people, pushing paper without seeing the results of your labor, or you can work for yourself and actually behold the fruit of your efforts. Everything you do, you know you’re doing it for a purpose. A man who works for only money, he ain’t got anything to be proud of. As an orchardist, you’ll have the proof right in your hands. If you don’t get frosted out, or if it don’t rain too much, or if it don't get so warm that growing apples becomes impossible.” He grimaced, remembering the heat and heavy precipitation of the previous year and the diseases they’d struggled against.
“My family is nothing but a bunch of meth-heads and criminals,” said the Goon soberly. “I’ve messed with that stuff, I admit. But I’d like to follow after you, Sam. You seem a happy-enough person.”
“I’m damn-near content,” replied Sam. “Happiness is a bit much to ask for.” He’d stopped chasing after it a long time ago. It was best to be content, with a beer in one’s hand. Looking for love or a deeper purpose in life was a fool’s folly.
“You know one of them Howards works in that building?” said the Goon. “The Howards used to live next to my family. The old Grandma got everybody nearly thrown in jail. She ratted us out to the police. My daddy was making meth on the property, and he taught Ol’ Slack and Willy. They was the kind of brothers that would chase you around the house with a butcher knife,” said the Goon. “Willy's still in jail but I think he's up for parole soon."
“What a shame,” said Sam, puffing out great rings of smoke.
“They taught me how to shoot a gun. And how to fight. You can’t live with older brothers and not know how to take a beating.”
“I suppose that’s a life skill,” said Sam. You could only talk to the Goon for so long. “Go look back there in the barn for some more Captan. Hernando ain’t finished spraying.”
The Goon complied, shuffling through the barn. The barn was older than the Jonathan, but its oak supports were sturdier than ever. There had been a similarly ancient barn on the Pasteur ancestral property. Sam and his friends had used to climb among the supports and throw rotten apples at each other. They'd even had a club called the Adventurers' Guild. You had to climb to the top of the barn to earn your membership.
I’d like to be a child again, he thought. It was a strange thought for an old man, but was it that strange for a person to want to start all over again? He thought of Regina Andersons, and how they’d courted in high school. Tobacco fields and marijuana smoke. A six pack and a fist-full of condoms. Making love in the back of an old pickup with Bob Seger on the radio. Funny how he hated hearing him now. Night-moves my ass.
To be the Goon’s age, even with the Goon’s ugly face. No routine, no set schedule. No history spanning years. No familial rivalry to pursue to its conclusion. No apple orchard.
Yet he was advising the Goon to live like him.
Hernando brought the tractor in, pulling up to the water pump. He jumped down and put a hose in the sprayer tank. Out of the barn came the Goon, carrying a white bottle of fungicide, cradling it like a baby.
Sam sighed. What was the point of harboring a grudge against the Rodriguez family for all these years? Why even bother chopping down the old trees and the Jonathan? Juan Carlito had been defeated by his own son. Should he risk rustling up his ghost? Surely he was turning in his grave knowing that Sam was in charge of his orchard.
He put out the cigarette and shoved a blade of grass in-between his teeth. The Goon and Hernando were mixing the spray together. He wondered if it was possible for the Goon to learn Spanish.
Sam had been thinking a lot lately about the state of the world. When he was a young man, everyone feared the repercussions of nuclear warfare. The enemies were known: Soviet Russia and Red China. The world was united against communism, and we,
obviously the good guys. There was talk of fallout shelters and hiding beneath
desks, while comic books ran stories about mutation and gigantism. The threat
was there, it was real and concrete, but it was also just a paranoia in the air
that most people didn’t take very seriously, perhaps because of the theory of
mutually assured destruction or because we couldn’t comprehend the possibility
of apocalypse. Maybe we thought that when the forces of good and evil were
transparent, there wasn’t anything to worry about. America
But the world now…things seemed bleaker and less clear-cut. There was terrorism perpetuated by individuals, not nation states. There was the economy and the self-serving government. The one-percent, as the liberal media liked to call them. Oil was vanishing; Sam knew this, the rising gas prices were evidence enough. Little towns like Hillsdale were becoming full of jobless, depressed people. The Goon needed to be able to provide for himself in the future. He’d need to have mastered practical skills rather than the kind of useless learning propagated by the overcrowded universities. Looking at him over there, ribbing Hernando and giggling in his slack-jawed manner, Sam had trouble envisioning his performing any duty not involving hard manual labor.
“Quit bothering Hernando and get over here,” he yelled a little too harshly. As the Goon shuffled up, Sam rose from the tailgate. “Let’s go look at the new trees.”
They walked through an open field that had been recently plowed for planting. Sam scanned the earth as they walked, looking for arrowheads. It had been ages since he’d found one. “The
used to hunt in this area,” he said. “Used to be every time I plowed I’d find
something. You’ve seen the axe-head in the barn, haven’t you? I found that out
“You gotta think that after all the plowing that’s been done, the Indian stuff might have all been found,” said the Goon. “I ain’t ever found an arrowhead.”
That’s probably true, he thought, and it made him sad for some reason.
They passed the William’s Pride trees, an early summer apple variety, and the Goon stopped and fondled the growing fruit. “They look like testicles,” he said as he held a tiny apple between his thumb and forefinger.
“Buds swell into blossoms and then turn into breasts,” replied Sam, now also fingering an apple. The sexual analogy was apt; if anything was his mistress, it was the orchard. You have to see a woman in it, he thought. Unless he was wrong about the Goon’s sexual orientation, his protégé wasn’t thinking right.
They came up to the new orchard. On the hillside you could see row after row of tiny stick-like trees, each anchored to a stake for support. Most of these were Gold Rush, a spicy-sweet-tart variety that ripened late and possessed excellent storage properties. It was a popular apple at farmers’ markets, and Sam was very pleased with its production and disease-resistance. Past the apples was a peach orchard that would fruit for the first time next year.
“Take care of these trees and they’ll take care of you,” he said to the Goon as they reached the summit of the hill. He gestured at a plastic ring that covered the small trees’ trunks. “Keep tree-guards on to deter rabbits, and watch out for deer. They love to nibble the delicate new shoots. I find the best defense is a good offense.” He pointed to a tree stand about one-hundred feet away, lodged in a tall oak. “I’ve always enjoyed deer jerky. But make sure you don’t shoot the Old Man.”
“Who’s the Old Man? You don’t mean you, do you?” replied the Goon.
Sam smiled and shook his head. “No, the Old Man is a local legend. He’s eight feet tall and covered in shaggy hair. Has glowing red eyes and smells worse than fresh baby-shit.”
“So he’s a Bigfoot? Is he real?”
“I ain’t seen him in a long time, so I don’t know,” said Sam.
He’d been a boy when it had happened. He’d been lying half-naked on a massive rock next to a creek not too far from the Rodriguez property, hoping that a girl or a nymph would stumble upon him out in the wilderness and fulfill his adolescent fantasies. He’d kept a stack of pornography hidden in a backpack beneath a rock, and one day right after consulting a vintage Playboy he’d stolen from his brother, Sam noticed a wad of creamy white fluid drifting past him in the waters. He took a stick and poked the mass, and knew from the way it laconically oozed that it was semen. More and more of the stuff was being carried by the water, so he followed the flow upstream. Sam had only walked a couple of feet up the hill when he saw it kneeling by the bank. It looked almost like a bear, and it was leaning against a rock with one of its simian hands clutched around a bright pink thing that was mostly certainly its penis. Back and forth the huge hand moved, methodically like a piston, and then it stopped and reached down into the water, scooped up a great handful of mud, and recommenced its motions. This close to it, the smell was nauseating like old meat left in the garbage can, and his eyes began to water. There was a magazine spread open next to the creature, one of his own, and he thought of the old wives’ tale regarding masturbation. You’ll grow hair on your palms if you don’t stop doing that! He’d stood there for what seemed like forever when finally the creature became aware of his presence and growled at him with giant baked-bean teeth. It then bounded away into the forest, and Sam was left there feeling horrified, bewildered, and slightly amused.
“No, don’t shoot at the Old Man if you ever manage this place,” he said. “He’s just trying to find some pleasure in life like the rest of us.”
“Okay,” said the Goon in a monotone. “When’s the peaches gonna be ready?”
“Soon enough. Then we’ll get back in the market business.”
“I’d like to go back down to Findlay Market in
and gawk at all the pretty ladies,” he replied. “I tell them every piece of
fruit is harvested with love.” Cincinnati
“Don’t lay that shit on too thick,” said Sam. “Bullshitting is a skill that takes time to develop. You don’t want to sound like you’re trying to sell them a crappy car.”
“I’d sell them myself if I could.”
“Yeah, I might sell you too, if offered the right price, which would be just about nothing,” he said. He put a leathery hand on the Goon’s shoulder. The veins bulged from the thin skin like earthworms.